New Zealand failed Peter Ellis

Newsroom. 30 July 2019

There can be few cases in New Zealand history where a person has been so egregiously failed by the police, the court system, and by successive Governments, both National and Labour, as Peter Ellis has been.

I confess I didn’t pay much attention to Peter’s alleged crimes when they were supposed to have happened in the early ‘nineties.  I guess I was too concerned with the serious recession New Zealand was going through at that time, and what the Reserve Bank (of which I was then Governor) could do to improve the situation.  It was only a decade later, soon after I entered Parliament in 2002, that I was persuaded by my son Alan to read Lynley Hood’s Montana Award-winning book “A City Possessed” – a book for which she was rightly awarded a doctor of literature.

That book more than anything else convinced the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders that the conviction of Peter Ellis on charges of child molestation at the Christchurch Civic Creche was utterly without merit and should have been struck down years ago.

We have known for years that the oral testimony of very young children when cross-examined by authority figures committed to achieving a particular outcome is highly unreliable.

We have known that parents offered significant financial “compensation” from the Accident Compensation Corporation for any harm experienced by their infant children have an incentive to identify such harm.

And despite that, successive appeals for a commission of inquiry (the first within a month of Peter’s conviction in June 1993), requests for legal aid to enable an appeal to the Privy Council, referrals to the Court of Appeal, three requests for pardon, and a special inquiry under Sir Thomas Eichelbaum all came to nothing.  In the eyes of the law, Peter remains guilty of serious offences against young children.

After reading Lynley Hood’s book and learning the whole story, including how one of the children whose testimony had been important in convicting Peter had subsequently recanted, I persuaded my Parliamentary colleague Katherine Rich to join me in mounting a petition calling for a royal commission of inquiry into the case.

We were both busy with Parliamentary duties so had limited time to gather signatures.  Katherine thought we could well get a few dozen signatures; I thought we could well get 100.  We were both totally wrong.  People rushed to sign.  People from every party in Parliament signed – Winston Peters, Judith Collins, Rodney Hide, Clem Simich, David Parker and many more.  Two former Prime Ministers signed (David Lange and Mike Moore), along with 11 law professors and umpteen Queen’s Counsel.  Chris Finlayson signed, though he was not yet in Parliament.

In the end, more than 4,000 people signed the petition.  The petition was considered by the Justice select committee.  Unfortunately, the committee rejected the call for a royal commission to deal exclusively with the Peter Ellis case, but instead recommended that New Zealand follow the example of the United Kingdom and establish a Criminal Cases Review Commission to look at all convictions where there is a widespread public perception that the justice system had got it seriously wrong.

The then-Labour Government ignored that recommendation, as did three subsequent National-led Governments, despite the fact that one minister in the National Government had had children in the Christchurch civic creche at the time of Peter’s alleged offending and was absolutely convinced of his innocence.

Time rolls on.  We now have a Labour-led Government, and one minister in that Government is David Parker.  He was in fact the only member of the Labour caucus to sign the petition which Katherine Rich and I mounted in 2003, but he felt so strongly about the matter that he went to the trouble of seeking the approval of his caucus before signing – as he felt he had to do given that his party was in Government.  I have little doubt that the fact that setting up a Criminal Cases Review Commission was part of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto had a great deal to do with David Parker, and it is good to note that a Bill to set up such a Commission has already passed its first reading.

It is impossible to believe that an objective review of the evidence in the light of everything we now know about the unreliability of the evidence of very young children, and about some of the quite preposterous “evidence” which was never put before the jury, would not result in Peter’s total exoneration.

Indeed, I have not yet met anybody who has read Lynley Hood’s book who still believes that Peter was guilty of the crimes which he was convicted of.

Several years ago, I was at a small dinner party hosted by a judge.  One of the other guests was a member of the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court judge (no longer on the court) expressed “severe misgivings” about the soundness of Peter’s conviction.

Media reports suggest that Peter’s lawyer is still hoping to get his conviction over-turned by direct appeal to the Supreme Court.  Given that media reports suggest that Peter has cancer and may have only three months to live, the Court will need to hurry.

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Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.